Living in Korea: Essential tips & cultural considerations for teaching English abroad
Getting set up in Korea requires some time and planning, but we’ve compiled a checklist so that you’ll know what to expect and how to prepare to teach in Korea. Though Korea exhibits an eagerness to learn about Western culture, its people are still firmly rooted in Asian tradition. The country also has one of the most ethnically homogeneous populations in the world. More than three quarters of the people have the surname Kim, Lee, or Park. Korean culture centers on the family, and Koreans write their surname before their given (first) name. Until recently, it was very common to see several generations of one family living under the same roof.
This strong sense of family dates back to Confucianism and continues to this day. In addition to obedience to one’s parents, Confucian principles encourage loyalty to the government and country and to one’s spouse. Because Confucian ideals also require people to keep emotions and appearances under control, drinking with friends or coworkers is one of the few times when Koreans really let loose and enjoy themselves. Most Korean companies host mandatory hwe-shik (company meal and drink) at least once or twice each month, so you’re likely to see drunken revelers on the streets any night of the week.
- Do wrap fish bones or other uneatable portions of your meal in paper before throwing them away. Don't leave these items in plain sight on your plate or pick out pieces of food and seasonings that you don't want to eat.
- Do bring a small gift when you visit someone. If someone offers you a gift, you're expected to refuse a few times before accepting the gift. But you must accept the gift so you don't appear rude.
- Do use two hands when accepting a gift or presenting your business card to an elder.
- Do avoid direct eye contact with someone who is your senior in a business setting.
- Do remove your shoes when entering a Korean home.
- Don't tip at a restaurant or bar that displays a "no tipping" sign. Some places automatically add a 10% service charge, and they consider it rude to tip beyond that.
- Don't write a Korean person's name in red ink, because that implies that the person has died (!).
- Don't put your business cards or someone else's in your back pocket, because Koreans view this as disrespectful.
- Don't squeeze hard when shaking someone's hand.
Applying for your Alien Registration Card
- Two passport-sized photos (3 to 4 cm)
- A valid passport
- A letter or certificate proving employment
- 10,000 KRW for the processing fee
- A completed Alien Registration Card application form
Banking & Sending Money Home
Most employers can help you open a Korean bank account. The banks require you to have your Alien Registration Card (see above) before you open your account, so do that first. Many ATMs display instructions in Korean, but you will find that some have English menus, especially in large public locations. Banks in more urban areas will also have at least one teller who speaks English, but it's best to bring a Korean friend.
In general, banking hours in Korea are Monday to Friday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. However, you can access most ATMs until 10 pm, and some are accessible 24 hours a day. Citibank has over 240 locations in Korea, so if you have a Citibank account back home, you can access your account without paying a fee. However, there are restrictions on depositing money, so you will still want to open a Korean bank account for depositing paychecks.
You have several options for sending money home, all with varying fees. These include direct bank-to-bank transfers and transfers through third-party agencies (like Western Union). Some banks have restrictions on the amount of money residents on a one-year visa are allowed to transfer (for example: up to $10,000 in a year). Other banks will allow 60% or 80% of your salary to be sent home.
Money / Cost of Living
Korea’s currency is the Korean Won (KRW), and the current exchange rate is around 1,000 KRW to 1 USD We suggest you bring between $800 and $1,000 USD to last until you can open a Korean bank account. Please also exchange at least a couple hundred dollars to Korean Won prior to your departure to avoid any currency issues later on.
Compared to other Asian countries like Japan, Korea has a very reasonable cost of living, especially if you do not own property. By managing your expenses, you will be able to save money working as an English teacher in Korea.
In Korea, the local cuisine costs much less than American food, making it easier to eat out at a reasonable price. Western brands are often marked at higher price than local goods. The table below is a sample of prices in Korea:
Starbucks coffee (Tall Americano)
Dunkin Donuts coffee (regular)
Milk (1 liter)
Domino's pizza (large)
Big Mac combo at McDonald's
Bread (1 loaf)
As a resident, you will have a monthly television subscription fee (2,500 KRW) automatically added to your electricity bill. Korea has five TV stations that broadcast from 6:00 am to 1:00 am. Most foreign movie and shows get dubbed into Korean when they are shown on TV. However, a simulcast of the original language usually accompanies the dubbed signal and is available with locally made TV sets. The U.S. Armed Forces also operates its own television station in English, offering mostly U.S. shows. However, with a weak signal, many residences in Gangnam-gu have difficulty getting a clear view of the channel without cable.
Korean cable TV offers specialty channels such as home shopping, movies, sports, and music. Different cable companies offer different selections of channels (most have several different packages available), including some foreign channels (primarily news and sports). Local Arirang TV also broadcasts shows in English or Korean shows with English subtitles.
You can also watch American or Canadian cable TV remotely using a device called a slingbox (slingmedia.com). You'll need a friend or relative back home who is willing to hook up your slingbox to their cable line and broadband Internet connection. This should not slow down your friend's Internet connection, but of course, primetime TV in the U.S. or Canada coincides with Korea's morning hours because of the time difference.
Most Koreans prefer to communicate on a mobile phone, so getting one with local service is a must. An average monthly bill ranges between $30 to $70, and brand new mobile phones cost between $100 to $500 depending on the features. However, about $200 will get you a brand new color phone with a digital camera and MP3 player. If you're looking for an inexpensive used phone, check with your employer to see if any teachers are returning from their teach English abroad experience and are willing to resell their phone to you.
All Guest English Teachers (GETS) except Canadians are exempt from paying Korean income tax for the first two years of employment. In order to be tax exempt, the following documents must be submitted to the supervisor in charge of the program within the first month of employment: an application form (provided by your supervisor) and a copy of a Residence Certificate (issued by the relevant authority: the Revenue Office of your resident country). If you have already worked more than two years in Korea, you will not be eligible for the tax exemption. Because there is no tax treaty between Canada and Korea, Canadian instructors will be responsible for paying approximately 2–4% of their income as Korean income tax, depending on the level of employment.
Under certain conditions, American residents working abroad are entitled to exclusions on foreign-earned income. If you are a U.S. citizen, then the U.S. Embassy can provide you with copies of the "Tax Guide for U.S. Citizens Abroad" and "Overseas Filers of Form 1040,” or you can download these documents from www.irs.gov. Canadian citizens should refer to cra-arc.gc.ca/menu-e.html.
Korea has a fast, efficient, and inexpensive transportation system including subways, buses, and trains.
Subway lines cover most of the popular areas, with stops near the major train stations and bus terminals. Station signs are written in English and Korean. Announcements about the upcoming stop are made in Korean, but some lines also have English announcements.
Korea has three major types of bus service: intra-city, long distance, and charter. We recommend that you use a seat belt whenever one is available, because Korean bus drivers tend to drive fast and sometimes ignore traffic laws. Still, Korea's buses offer a fast and relatively safe way to get around.
Korea has high-speed trains (KTX) as well as regular local trains that go to areas outside of Seoul. Direction signs are written in Korean as well as English. On the platform, station signs include the name of the station, as well as the previous and next stations (in English, Korean, and sometimes Chinese characters). The Korea National Railroad site lists timetables and fares in English. With a passport, foreigners are able to get discounted prices for some services like the KTX.